Cuba’s Cars: A History of Automotive Evolution

Cuba’s Cars: A History of Automotive Evolution

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On a small island just 90 miles south of Florida, you will find a unique car culture ¬– a land laden with American classics from the 1950s and ’60s. These vintage vehicles are kept alive out of dire necessity and fueled by Cuban ingenuity. Lovingly called “Yank Tanks,” their owners have kept these Detroit automobiles running, passing them down from one generation to the next. Today, Cuba is home to many relics of American automotive history.

Before 1960

American cars like iconic Chevrolets, Buicks and Studebakers of the 1950s flooded the streets of Cuba. Their owners were among Cuba’s large emerging middle class who loved the beautiful behomeths¬ with chrome grills, curved panels, two-toned color schemes and big fins. During the Batista era, imports of Chryslers, Studebakers and Desotos outnumbered any other country; import fees in Cuba were low and replacement parts easy to get. From 1941 to 1952, registered passenger cars increased nearly fivefold to 77,000, according to author Christopher P. Baker, who wrote “Cuba Classics: A Celebration of Vintage American Automobiles.” By 1956, there were about 125,000. The land had appeal for Americans too. It was a vacation playground, a getaway filled with crowded casinos and a rambunctious nightlife that attracted the likes of Earnest Hemingway and Frank Sinatra. For those Cubans who could afford it, they were watching TVs and driving American automobiles. It was a time when Cubans embraced a sense of delayed gratification, buying U.S.-made cars and worrying about how to pay for them later. Prosperity reigned.

Because World War II had halted much of the auto imports from Europe, Detroit auto manufacturers had a near monopoly in Cuba. General Motors held the lead, with Chevrolets and Buicks among the most popular. Many U.S. companies operated factories in Cuba and, in 1954, the Chrysler Corporation operated an assembly plant there, continuing vehicle fabrication until the embargo.

Approximately 60,000 cars still cruise the streets today. It’s not the lack of power steering that appeals to these Cuban car owners, but rather the mere fact that car ownership became a rare commodity nearly overnight. After 1959, all U.S auto imports halted, even replacement auto parts. Once Cuba gained economic support from the Soviet Union, new car ownership was also restricted, and often limited to Russian Ladas from the ’70s and ’80s. Government employees or well-connected Cubans were typically the only ones allowed to import cars during that time. You’d see some “modern” cars, those built-in the last 15 to 20 years, but they had exorbitant price tags. These conditions have produced the lowest number of vehicles per capita than any other country in the Western Hemisphere, averaging about 21 cars for every 1,000 people as of 2008. The U.S has about 21 times that amount. Over time, these classic beauties became battered by daily use driving on poorly constructed streets filled with potholes. This forced American car owners in Cuba to get creative.

Innovation and renovation: Duct tape and diesel engines

Cubans kept their cars running any way they could, and in the process became good at innovation. In some instances, they used shampoo as brake fluid, swapped out American V8 engines for German or Japanese diesel engines or implemented other jury-rigged methods to keep driving their American cars. If they could get it, duct tape was used on interiors. Door handles were missing and steering wheels were oftentimes rusted, with replacements welded from abandoned autos that littered the Cuban streets. Thus, the engineering ability of Cuba’s homegrown mechanics thrived. These mechanics found ways. Family members visiting Cuba often filled their suitcases with car parts from the U.S. Car owners also relied on the expanding black market where auto parts were traded, or they crafted replacements out of nearly anything available. Medical tubing became fuel lines, tin was transformed to recreate rusted chrome parts like tailpipes, and Russian headlights found their way into these classics. But still Cubans were limited by another issue: money. The average Cuban makes under $30 a month, and they often couldn’t afford car repairs or the fuel to drive them.

Taxis for tourists (2000-2010)

By the early 2000s, the Cuban government began relaxing its laws allowing more and more used auto sales. For the first time, people were allowed to buy and sell cars themselves. By 2013, many more Cubans were entering the unsanctioned “private” sector, and many American car owners saw an emerging opportunity to turn a profit with their generations-owned vehicles. They became taxi drivers. Tourists would line up to take a spin in a restored 1950s-era Chevy Bel Air, hardtop Oldsmobile or Pontiac. For the passenger cruising the Old Havana streets, it was an ode to a past time. Those with near mint-condition vehicles commanded high fares from their owners, but over half of the money was used for maintenance.

With more than 3 million visitors annually, Cuba is likely to hang on to its American automobiles that have become an icon for its landscape. Newly lifted trade restrictions allow for Cuban-made goods to leave the island, but nothing has been established for these American cars made in Detroit before 1960. Plus, owning these vehicles is a matter of national pride.

When the Obama Administration relaxed restrictions with Cuba, many saw it as a chance for American businesses that specialize in aftermarket auto parts, especially for older vehicles, to create a new revenue stream. But the Cuban government has yet to allow major businesses into its economy, so for now much-needed auto parts are first found in the suitcases of travelers coming to Cuba, an opportunity that has been reestablished since American tourists can now travel much easier into the country. For the forseeable future, Cubans will keep toiling under the hood and odometers turning on these pre-revolutionary classics.

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